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The world has been conscious of climate change for decades, but the particulars of its disproportionate effect on women are only just entering public consciousness.
The number of extreme weather-related disasters has doubled in the last two decades, according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). Floods, hurricanes, cyclones and drought disproportionately affect vulnerable countries in the Global South - the consequences of which can be overwhelming.
A case in point is the multi-year drought that is currently ravaging East Africa with catastrophic consequences. The impact on agriculture is stark - major crop yields are massively reduced, contributing to food price hikes and income losses. These changes threaten food security across the world.
Women and climate change in the Global South
That is the greatest injustice of climate change, that those who bear the least responsibility for climate change are the ones who will suffer the most.
So says Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and UN High Commissioner. The world has been aware of climate change for decades, but the particulars of its disproportionate effect on women are only just entering public consciousness.
Women are less likely to survive in a disaster and are more likely to be injured due to entrenched gender inequalities that mean they lack information, mobility, power of decision-making, and access to resources and training.
Women and girls are less likely to be able to access aid and support following a natural catastrophe, further threatening their livelihoods, wellbeing and recovery, and creating a vicious cycle of vulnerability to future disasters.
The Global South is not on the front page but it’s on the frontline.
The economic impact of climate change
Across the world, women depend more on, yet have less access to, natural resources. In many regions, women bear a disproportionate responsibility for securing food, water, and fuel. Significantly, it is the livelihoods that women often hold that are most adversely affected. Around one third of employed women worldwide work in agricultural roles.
The inherent gender bias in the economic system means that women in agriculture are often denied access to financial support like credit or loans. For smallholding farmers in developing countries, this support is critical in the face of climate disaster. Men are more likely to be able to borrow the money needed to structure a farm around environmental security: investing in drought-resistant seeds, advanced tools, and high-quality fertiliser that is more resistant to climate change. Women are not only uniquely impacted by the aftermath of climate change - discrimination means that mitigating its effects is particularly difficult.
Only a month ago, nearly half of Malawi was damaged by Cyclone Freddy, which killed hundreds and became the longest-lasting tropical storm on record. “This demonstrates that climate change issues are real and we are standing right in the path of it,” said President Lazarus Chakwera. He added that the climate crisis had the potential to keep “a nation like Malawi in perpetual poverty”.
Concern Malawi’s Chris Njima explains the domino effect a few seasons of bad rains has on a family in Malawi: “It means less food on the table for longer periods, with families either skipping meals or eating smaller portions.” As many as one million children under five in Malawi are stunted, and over 60% of the country’s children are anaemic due to poor diets.
Women building resilience
It’s not just economic security that is endangered by extreme weather. A community’s ability to build resilience is heavily reliant on its women - who are tasked with caregiving roles alongside occupational pressures. However, they are also most likely to drive for a sustainable solution.
A report by the European Capacity Building Initiative (ECBI) notes that the gender roles and responsibilities ascribed to women mean they are uniquely positioned to aid with decision-making regarding climate change. Often responsible for both the education of communities, and practical land-management like monitoring seed growth, women are already advocating for transformation in their communities.
Meet the Handaraku women’s group
In the patriarchal communities of Tana River County, Kenya, an area reeling from successive climate shocks, in particular flooding, the tradition that women and girls should ‘be seen and not heard’ discourages women from voicing their opinions.
Concern is trying to break this bias by working with local government to ensure that women are involved in flood-resilience activities. Early in the process, when a female staff member stood up to speak, all the men looked to the side - they felt that a woman should not address men and the elderly. What worked for the women was voicing opinions comfortably in their own group - and then presenting them to the larger group. They gained the confidence to make their voices heard in subsequent meetings and took on roles on the Flood Resilience Action Committee.
Following the development of the Community Action Plan, women grew confident in voicing their opinions in front of an audience. They spoke of the challenges they faced during floods and the solutions they felt would increase flood resilience.
While men wanted big structural projects, such as the construction of dykes, bridges and permanent houses, women leaned towards accessing safe water, maintaining hygiene levels during flooding to protect against water-borne diseases, table banking (a community-based loan system), and diversifying livelihoods to increase their income.
Several women are now active in the Community Advocacy Group. If they succeed in getting their priorities included in the five-year County Integrated Development Plan (CIDP), they will be one step closer to getting County Government funding.
Shaping policy change
While the effects of climate change are undoubtedly overwhelming, solutions are being created, and successes are being seen among the most vulnerable groups. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature has specifically called for investment in plans that collaborate with local leaders and marginalised groups. Multiple different actors across society, but particularly the most marginalised groups, need to be involved in shaping policy to help countries develop comprehensive action that builds on women’s unique knowledge and perspectives.
In October last year, Concern worked with the National Youth Network on Climate Change at Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources in Malawi, on the My Climate Action campaign - calling for climate justice.
It’s important to remember Mary Robinson’s statement that “climate change is not gender-neutral – it affects women far more. So this is not about climate change, it is about climate justice.” Following last November’s COP27, Ms Robinson called for a "mosaic of approaches", including gender-disaggregated data and gender finance; and a doubling in adaptation climate finance by 2025, as loss and damage suffered by women and girls is disproportionately terrible. Pressure on governments, and the insight of local women leaders, will be key to a climate-conscious future.
The message is clear, the impact of climate change on the poorest communities is devastating and since women make up the majority of the 1.9 billion people living in poverty around the world, it is women who must take the lead in the fight.
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